Creating sport environments that support mental health for girls and womenJuly 6, 2022
This blog post provides a recap of the fourth webinar in the 4-part mini-series Engaging Girls and Women in Sport. SIRC and Canadian Women & Sport co-hosted the mini-series, which you can access or learn more about by visiting our SIRC Experts Webinar page.
Every year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2021). This blog post draws on research and lived experiences to explore topics in women’s and girls’ mental health in a sport context, set against the backdrop of rising mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we summarize the conversation of a webinar panel highlighting athlete, coach and clinician perspectives on best practices for creating sport environments that support mental health and foster holistic wellness for girls and women.
Webinar panelists included:
- Tracy Vaillancourt, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in School-based Mental Health and Violence Prevention, and professor at the University of Ottawa
- Shaunna Taylor, Ph.D., CCC, mental performance and health practitioner, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia
- Julie-Anne Staehli, professional runner and Tokyo 2020 Olympian
- Haley Smith, professional cyclist and Tokyo 2020 Olympian
Key mental health challenges for women and girls in sport
The panelists identified 4 key themes that underlie the mental health challenges that women and girls are facing in sport today.
Although many people believe that perfectionism is a desirable personality trait, it‘s unhelpful, says Tracy Vaillancourt. Perfectionism encourages an athlete to set unrealistically high standards and constantly measure themselves against them. A person may feel like they‘ve failed when they‘re unable to meet these unrealistic standards. Research links perfectionism to higher incidences of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts and risks (Limburg et al., 2017).
2. Body image and diet culture
Perfectionism and body image challenges in sport often go hand-in hand. Sport and fitness cultures consistently promote unrealistic (and perfectionistic) standards of what our bodies “should” look like. Clinicians are observing a noticeable increase in disordered eating and exercise, especially after the pandemic started.
We know [these behaviours] are typically aligned with needing a feeling of control over one’s life and in the face of all the disruptions we’ve had with the pandemic, that really exacerbated [it] for folks that were on a healing journey and got them right back into the same patterns they were in, in the past.Shaunna Taylor
3. Social media
Social media presents another mental health challenge for athletes. By providing opportunities for strangers to anonymously share hurtful opinions and comments about others, social media can be toxic and cruel to girls and women in sport. It can also contribute to perfectionism and perpetuate diet culture and body image concerns. As an athlete describing her experience with social media, Julie-Anne Staehli says, “It’s something that feels almost out of your control. <…> You feel like it’s part of who you are and your identity, but it’s also [about] how people perceive you.”
Young people need to understand that everything [they] see on the Internet, on social media, is really contrived and purposeful and in a lot of ways not true, and so they’re making social comparisons to something that isn’t attainable. It’s an unfair comparison and it’s never going to favour you…Tracy Vaillancourt
4. Performance pressures
All athletes, from recreational to competitive, deal with challenges around perfectionism, body image or social comparison. For high performance athletes, there are added kinds of pressures to perform, sometimes with limited access to mental health resources.
In my personal journey, I didn’t have free access to mental health professionals until I was performing at a very high level and in the Olympic selection pool. And that’s a bit backwards to me. I think you need to have those resources earlier in your career to cultivate skills to get you to the Olympic level.Hailey Smith
Person first, athlete second
By adopting a “person first, athlete-second” mentality, sport leaders, coaches, parents and guardians can help athletes navigate mental health challenges, including those brought on by social media. This approach focuses on developing the person first and creating mentally healthy environments for young athletes.
In sport, your body is your instrument. It’s an instrument, not an ornament. Yet we really celebrate the ornamental side in our sector. It’s a lot about performance but it’s also a lot about the visual. So, giving girls and women a new type of language and way to define themselves as an athlete, [using] other performance indicators, like [their] value as a human being: person first, athlete secondShaunna Taylor
Coaches can use the following strategies to create a “person first” environment for fostering a culture that prioritizes athletes’ mental health:
- See their athletes as people first and understand that they have many other components to their identity.
- Acknowledge their life outside of sport and recognize that these elements are as important as athletic performance. They often contribute significantly to athletic performance.
- Take 5 to 10 minutes before a training session to ask how an athlete is doing as a person. This both helps build trusting relationships and helps gauge how the athlete is doing physically.
- Step up in moments of failure, when your athletes are most vulnerable. Treat your athletes with compassion.
As a parent [or guardian] or coach, I think that’s a really important strategy that you can use. When your athletes are vulnerable, that’s when you [particularly] need to treat them like a person.Hailey Smith
Supporting holistic health in sport
Adopting a “person first, athlete second” mindset can help support a holistic approach to athletes’ health and wellness. By being vulnerable and sharing their own experiences with athletes, both coaches and leaders can contribute to humanizing sport.
More widely, organizations can support holistic health by incorporating multi-dimensional models of player development to go beyond physical components into coaching frameworks. An example is the 4‑corner approach in soccer that bridges physical, tactical, psychological, and social or emotional dimensions.
It’s hard to be the best when you don’t feel like you’re the best… If we ignore the social, emotional and psychological, I don’t think we’re going to be producing the best athletes we can.Tracy Vaillancourt
Emphasizing that athletes are multi-dimensional individuals, Shaunna Taylor says an intersectional approach to athlete health is essential: “All those things are part of who we are. And, we have to find a way to layer that into the sports sector versus homogenizing everyone into a one-size-fits-all [approach], which was the militaristic beginnings of sports.” Spiritual and cultural dimensions should also be part of this approach, as demonstrated by the Indigenous holistic model.
As Haley Smith concluded, mental health and a holistic approach to athletes’ well–being is a deeper investment that pays dividends over the long-term. Although practising a holistic approach can be difficult at times, maintaining this balance can not only encourage athlete well-being, but also drive athletic performance and support athlete longevity.
My coach just used the motto, ‘You need to be healthy, happy, then running fast’… You can forget about performance if the athlete you have in front of you isn’t holistically [in] good health mentally, physically… There will be moments when you’re pushing the envelope, but overall, you need to come back to that balanced maintenance.Julie-Anne Staehli
About the panelists
Find out more about the webinar panelists, access a recording of the Connecting Mind and Movement webinar or learn more about the Engaging Girls and Women in Sport mini-series by visiting the SIRC Expert Webinars page.
About Canadian Women & Sport
Canadian Women & Sport is dedicated to creating an equitable and inclusive Canadian sport and physical activity system that empowers girls and women. The aim is to empower them as active participants and leaders, within and through sport. With a focus on systemic change, we partner with sport organizations, governments and leaders to challenge the status quo and build better sport through gender equity.
About the Author(s)
Annabel Chan is a SIRC volunteer and a medical student at Queen’s University. She graduated from Western University, where she studied business and science and played soccer. Through her experience as a student-athlete, Annabel gained a passion for encouraging youth sport participation, particularly among girls and women. She hopes to stay involved in the sports community and incorporate the principles of healthy active living in her future career.
Marina Khonina is the Senior Research Coordinator at SIRC. They hold an MA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University, where they studied sporting cultures and women athletes’ relationship with food. With a background in writing and communication, Marina has a special interest in knowledge translation in sport and health sciences. Marina is also a track and field athlete who competes in sprinting events.
Canadian Mental Health Association. (2021). Fast Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness. https://cmha.ca/brochure/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/
Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2017). The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(10), 1301–1326. https://doi-org.proxy.queensu.ca/10.1002/jclp.22435
The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.